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London Mayor Badgers U.S. Envoy Over Fee

He defends his demand that commuters to the embassy pay city traffic charges. The Americans say they won't stoop to his level by responding.

April 04, 2006|Vanora McWalters | Special to The Times

LONDON — The mayor of London is in hot water again.

Pugnacious Ken Livingstone, whose feisty outbursts against his many enemies have enlivened the British political scene for as long as most voters can remember, has people on both sides of the Atlantic tut-tutting over his latest accusation: that the U.S. ambassador, whom the mayor called a "car salesman," is behaving like a "chiseling little crook" by refusing to pay traffic charges.

Over the weekend, the mayor defended his recent demand that Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle, a personal friend of President Bush who made his wealth from a major Orange County auto dealership, and other U.S. Embassy commuters pay the $14 charge to enter central London by car. British officials say the embassy staff members owe about $250,000 in fines for refusing to pay the fee.

"I have to say I do think it is completely and utterly unacceptable that the American ambassador turns up, having made his billions selling cars, and they stop [paying the fee]," Livingstone told the BBC's "Sunday AM," "particularly at a time when we are the only serious ally America's got and our young people are putting their lives on the line for George Bush's foreign policy every day.

"I think it stinks that he's weaseling his way out of paying his fair share to London, because it makes Londoners have to pay more because he's not paying his way," the mayor added.

Livingstone, a leftist whose relationship with his own Labor Party has traditionally been volatile and who is cordially detested by the political right, was already in trouble with the capital's Jewish community. He has appealed a decision by a disciplinary panel to suspend him for four weeks as punishment for comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard.

Last month, Livingstone said two property tycoons with whom he has quarreled over the development of the 2012 London Olympics site should "go back to Iran" and "see if they can do better under the ayatollahs" -- even though David and Simon Reuben were both born in India of Iraqi-Jewish parents.

The latest dispute began last week when Livingstone told ITV's "London Today" that "it would actually be quite nice if the American ambassador in Britain could pay the charge that everybody else is paying and not actually try and skive out of it like a chiseling little crook."

The U.S. Embassy stopped paying the fee in July, shortly before Tuttle was sworn in. Since then, the U.S. government has racked up a quarter of a million dollars in penalties for about 550 outstanding tickets related to the fee, known as a "congestion charge," which was introduced in 2003 to ease traffic in central London.

American officials in London say they consider the fee a tax, from which they are exempt under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Fifty-five other consulates and embassies, including that of Germany, also refuse to pay.

The U.S. Embassy would not comment on Livingstone's complaint. "The way we've approached this is not to dignify that kind of insult by responding to it. We don't want to encourage bad behavior, if you will, by responding to it," said David T. Johnson, the ambassador's top aide at the embassy.

"I think a lot of us are very depressed and disappointed at this latest outburst from our mayor of London," said Angie Bray, deputy leader of Conservative Party members in the capital's governing assembly. "The whole tone of his remarks is so damaging to the reputation of what is one of the world's greatest cities."

Although Livingstone's Conservative rivals for power and the vociferous right-wing tabloid press are howling for an apology, some seasoned Ken-watchers speculate that his broadside against Tuttle may be less an embarrassing gaffe than an astute play for votes in London elections next month. The May 4 vote for municipal councils will be the first test of the Conservative Party's apparent revival under new national leader David Cameron. Livingstone is not up for reelection.

The mercurial mayor, who has been active in London politics for 35 years, was allowed back into Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party two years ago after being expelled for running against its official candidate in the mayoral election.

Since then, Livingstone has "carefully avoided direct rows with the Labor government," says the current issue of the weekly newsmagazine the Economist, "but knocking the American ambassador distances him from Labor's America-friendly foreign policy, which in turn reminds London's voters that he opposed the unpopular Iraq war."

Article 34 of the 1961 Vienna convention says that "a diplomatic agent shall be exempt from all dues and taxes, personal or real, national, regional or municipal." It includes exceptions, such as "charges levied for specific services rendered" and "registration, court or record fees, mortgage dues and stamp duty, with respect to immovable property," that don't speak directly to the commuter fee.

The Times of London, usually staunchly pro-American and vociferously anti-Livingstone, published an editorial that reluctantly championed his cause.

"Diplomats are exempt from local taxes, but the congestion charge is not a tax," the paper said. "It's the equivalent of a train fare.

"The U.S. owes London ... less than 0.01% of the State Department's annual budget," the Times wrote, adding that to pay the fines "would be a lucrative investment in goodwill."

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